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This article was published in the April 2005 issue of Environment:

Science and Policy for Sustainable Development, Volume 47,

Number 3, pages 8–21. © Robert W. Kates, Thomas M. Parris,
and Anthony A. Leiserowitz, 2005. For more information about
Environment, see

By Robert W. Kates, Thomas M. Parris, and Anthony A. Leiserowitz

Sustainable development is . . .
Considering that the concept of sustainable development is now
enshrined on the masthead of Environment magazine, featured
on 8,720,000 Web pages,1 and enmeshed in the aspirations of
countless programs, places, and institutions, it should be easy to
complete the sentence. 2 But the most widely accepted definition
is creatively ambiguous: “Humanity has the ability to make devel-
opment sustainable—to ensure that it meets the needs of the
present without compromising the ability of future generations


to meet their own needs.”3 This malleabil- were often followed by global confer- nations should do to become richer,” and
ity allows programs of environment or ences. Characteristic of these interna- thus again is automatically dismissed by
development; places from local to global; tional commissions was the effort to many in the international arena as being
and institutions of government, civil soci- link together the aspirations of human- a concern of specialists, of those involved
ety, business, and industry to each project kind—demonstrating how the pursuit in questions of “development assistance.”
their interests, hopes, and aspirations onto of one great value required the others. But the “environment” is where we live;
the banner of sustainable development. Sustainable development, with its dual and “development” is what we all do in
A brief history of the concept, along emphasis on the most recent concerns— attempting to improve our lot within that
with the interpretive differences and the development and environment—is typi- abode. The two are inseparable.9
common ground in definitions, goals, cal of such efforts.
indicators, values, and practice follows. The World Commission on Environ- As with previous efforts, the report
Taken together, these help explain what ment and Development was initiated was followed by major international
is meant by sustainable development. by the General Assembly of the United meetings. The United Nations Confer-
Nations in 1982, and its report, Our Com- ence on Environment and Development
mon Future, was published in 1987.7 It (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 (the
Antecedents was chaired by then–Prime Minister of so-called “Earth Summit”) issued a dec-
Norway Gro Harlem Brundtland, thus laration of principles, a detailed Agen-
In the last half of the twentieth century, earning the name the “Brundtland Com- da 21 of desired actions, international
four key themes emerged from the col- mission.” The commission’s member- agreements on climate change and biodi-
lective concerns and aspirations of the ship was split between developed and versity, and a statement of principles on
world’s peoples: peace, freedom, devel- developing countries. Its roots were in forests.10 Ten years later, in 2002, at the
opment, and environment.4 The peace the 1972 Stockholm Conference on the World Summit on Sustainable Develop-
that was thought to be secured in the Human Environment—where the con- ment in Johannesburg, South Africa, the
postwar world of 1945 was immedi- flicts between environment and devel- commitment to sustainable development
ately threatened by the nuclear arms race. opment were first acknowledged—and was reaffirmed.11 In the interim, sustain-
Throughout the Cold War, peace was sus-
tained globally but fought locally, often
by proxies for the superpowers. While Although reinterpreted over time, peace,
the number of wars has diminished over
the last decade,5 peace is still sought, pri- freedom, development, and the environment
marily in Africa and the Middle East.
Freedom was sought early in the post-
remain prominent issues and aspirations.
war world in the struggle to end imperi-
alism; to halt totalitarian oppression; and in the 1980 World Conservation Strat- able development as a concept, as a goal,
later to extend democratic governance, egy of the International Union for the and as a movement spread rapidly and
human rights, and the rights of women, Conservation of Nature, which argued is now central to the mission of count-
indigenous peoples, and minorities. The for conservation as a means to assist less international organizations, national
success of many former colonies in attain- development and specifically for the institutions, corporate enterprises, “sus-
ing national independence was followed sustainable development and utilization tainable cities,” and locales.
by a focus on economic development to of species, ecosystems, and resources.8
provide basic necessities for the poor- Drawing on these, the Brundtland Com-
est two-thirds of the world and higher mission began its work committed to the Definitions
standards of living for the wealthy third. unity of environment and development.
Finally, it is only in the past 40 years that As Brundtland argued: The Brundtland Commission’s brief
the environment (local to global) became definition of sustainable development as
a key focus of national and international The environment does not exist as a sphere the “ability to make development sustain-
law and institutions. separate from human actions, ambitions, able—to ensure that it meets the needs
Although reinterpreted over time, and needs, and attempts to defend it of the present without compromising the
peace, freedom, development, and the in isolation from human concerns have ability of future generations to meet their
environment remain prominent issues given the very word “environment” a own needs”12 is surely the standard defi-
and aspirations. In the 1970s and 1980s, connotation of naivety in some political nition when judged by its widespread use
world commissions of notables6 were circles. The word “development” has also and frequency of citation. The use of this
created to study such international con- been narrowed by some into a very lim- definition has led many to see sustainable
cerns, producing major documents that ited focus, along the lines of “what poor development as having a major focus on


intergenerational equity. Although the The concept of sustainable development assemble under the sustainable devel-
brief definition does not explicitly men- does imply limits—not absolute limits but opment tent, also created a veritable
tion the environment or development, limitations imposed by the present state industry of deciphering and advocat-
the subsequent paragraphs, while rarely of technology and social organization on ing what sustainable development really
quoted, are clear. On development, the environmental resources and by the ability means. One important study—by the
report states that human needs are basic of the biosphere to absorb the effects of Board on Sustainable Development of
and essential; that economic growth— human activities.13 the U.S. National Academy of Scienc-
but also equity to share resources with es—sought to bring some order to the
the poor—is required to sustain them; In the years following the Brundtland broad literature its members reviewed.14
and that equity is encouraged by effec- Commission’s report, the creative ambi- In its report, Our Common Journey:
tive citizen participation. On the environ- guity of the standard definition, while A Transition toward Sustainability, the
ment, the text is also clear: allowing a range of disparate groups to board focused on the seemingly inher-
ent distinction between what advocates
and analysts sought to sustain and what
Figure 1. Definitions of sustainable development they sought to develop, the relationship
between the two, and the time horizon of
the future (see Figure 1 on this page).
Thus under the heading “what is to
be sustained,” the board identified three
WHAT IS TO FOR HOW LONG? WHAT IS TO major categories—nature, life support
BE SUSTAINED: 25 years BE DEVELOPED: systems, and community—as well as
“Now and in intermediate categories for each, such
the future” as Earth, environment, and cultures.
Forever Drawing from the surveyed literature,
the board found that most commonly,
NATURE PEOPLE emphasis was placed on life support
Earth Child survival systems, which defined nature or envi-
Biodiversity Life expectancy ronment as a source of services for the
Ecosystems Education utilitarian life support of humankind.
Equity The study of ecosystem services has
Equal opportunity strengthened this definition over time.
In contrast, some of the sustainable
LIFE SUPPORT LINKED BY ECONOMY development literature valued nature
Ecosystem Only Wealth
for its intrinsic value rather than its
services utility for human beings. There were
Mostly Productive
Resources sectors also parallel demands to sustain cultural
Environment Consumption diversity, including livelihoods, groups,
and places that constitute distinctive and
threatened communities.
Similarly, there were three quite dis-
tinct ideas about what should be devel-
oped: people, economy, and society.
Cultures Institutions Much of the early literature focused
Groups Social capital on economic development, with pro-
Places States ductive sectors providing employment,
Regions desired consumption, and wealth. More
recently, attention has shifted to human
development, including an emphasis on
values and goals, such as increased
life expectancy, education, equity, and
SOURCE: U.S. National Research Council, Policy Division, Board on Sustainable
Development, Our Common Journey: A Transition Toward Sustainability opportunity. Finally, the Board on Sus-
(Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1999). tainable Development also identified
calls to develop society that emphasized
the values of security and well-being of


national states, regions, and institutions development, equity, and social justice. (2015) goals of the Millennium Decla-
as well as the social capital of relation- Thus while the three pillars were rap- ration of the United Nations; the two-
ships and community ties. idly adopted, there was no universal generation goals (2050) of the Sustain-
There was ready agreement in the agreement as to their details. A Web ability Transition of the Board on Sus-
literature that sustainable development search of the phrase “three pillars of tainable Development; and the long-term
implies linking what is to be sustained sustainable development” finds a wide (beyond 2050) goals of the Great Transi-
with what is to be developed, but here, variety of environmental, economic, tion of the Global Scenario Group.
too, the emphasis has often differed from and social pillars with differences most
extremes of “sustain only” to “develop pronounced in characterizing the social UN Millennium Declaration
mostly” to various forms of “and/or.” pillar. Three major variants of social
Similarly, the time period of concern, development are found, each of which To mark the millennium, heads of
ambiguously described in the standard seeks to compensate for elements miss- state gathered in New York at the United
definition as “now and in the future,” has ing in the narrow focus on econom- Nations in September 2000. There, the
differed widely. It has been defined from ic development. The first is simply a UN General Assembly adopted some
as little as a generation—when almost generic noneconomic social designation 60 goals regarding peace; development;
everything is sustainable—to forever— that uses terms such as “social,” “social environment; human rights; the vulner-
when surely nothing is sustainable. development,” and “social progress.” able, hungry, and poor; Africa; and the
The 2002 World Summit on Sustain-
able Development marked a further
expansion of the standard definition Another way to define sustainable development
with the widely used three pillars of is in what it specifically seeks to achieve.
sustainable development: economic,
social, and environmental. The Johan-
nesburg Declaration created “a col- The second emphasizes human develop- United Nations.16 Many of these con-
lective responsibility to advance and ment as opposed to economic develop- tained specific targets, such as cutting
strengthen the interdependent and mutu- ment: “human development,” “human poverty in half or insuring universal
ally reinforcing pillars of sustainable well-being,” or just “people.” The third primary school education by 2015. For
development—economic development, variant focuses on issues of justice and eight of the major goals, progress is
social development and environmental equity: “social justice,’’ “equity,” and monitored by international agencies.17
protection—at local, national, regional “poverty alleviation.” In 2004, these agencies concluded that
and global levels.”15 In so doing, the at existing rates of progress, many
World Summit addressed a running con- countries will fall short of these goals,
cern over the limits of the framework of Goals particularly in Africa. Yet the goals still
environment and development, wherein seemed attainable by collective action
development was widely viewed solely Another way to define sustainable by the world community and national
as economic development. For many development is in what it specifically governments. To do so, the Millenni-
under the common tent of sustainable seeks to achieve. To illustrate, it is help- um Project, commissioned by the UN
development, such a narrow defini- ful to examine three sets of goals that use secretary-general, recently estimated
tion obscured their concerns for human different time-horizons: the short-term that the additional financial resources


that would be required to meet the Great Transition of the ment’s creative ambiguity, the most seri-
Millennium Development Goals are Global Scenario Group ous efforts to define it, albeit implicit
$135 billion in 2006, rising to $195 in many cases, come in the form of
billion in 2015. This roughly represents With the assistance of the Global indicators. Combining global, national,
a doubling of official aid flows over Scenario Group,20 the Board on Sustain- and local initiatives, there are literally
current levels and is still below the UN able Development conducted a scenario hundreds of efforts to define appropri-
goal of aid flows from industrialized to analysis of a proposed “Sustainability ate indicators and to measure them.
developing countries of 0.7 percent of Transition,” focusing specifically on Recently, a dozen such efforts were
the gross national product for industri- hunger and the emission of greenhouse reviewed.23 Half were global in cover-
alized countries.18 gasses. This initial analysis served as the age, using country or regional data (the
subsequent basis of the Policy Reform UN Commission on Sustainable Devel-
Sustainability Transition of the Scenario of the Global Scenario Group21 opment, Consultative Group on Sustain-
Board on Sustainable Development and concluded that a sustainability tran- able Development Indicators, Wellbe-
sition is possible without positing either ing Index, Environmental Sustainability
In 1995, the Board on Sustainable a social revolution or a technological Index, Global Scenario Group, and the
Development of the U.S. National miracle. But it is “just” possible, and the Ecological Footprint). Of the remain-
Academy of Sciences sought to make technological and social requirements to ing efforts, three were country stud-
sustainable development more mean- move from business as usual—without ies (in the United States, the Genuine
ingful to scientific analysis and contri- changing lifestyles, values, or econom- Progress Indicator and the Interagency
butions.19 To do so, the board decided to ic system—is daunting. Most daunting Working Group on Sustainable Devel-
focus on a two-generation time horizon of all is the governmental commitment opment Indicators, and in Costa Rica,
and to address the needs of a global required to achieve it and the political the System of Indicators for Sustainable
population with half as many more will to do so. Development); one was a city study
people as there are today—needs that, Finally, the Global Scenario Group (the Boston Indicators Project); one was
if met successfully, are not likely to also prepared a more idealistic Great global in scope but focused on indica-
be repeated within the next century or Transition Scenario that not only tors of unsustainability (State Failure
two because of the demographic tran- achieved the goals of the sustainability Task Force); and one focused on cor-
sition. In that time period, the board transition outlined by the Board on Sus- porate and nongovernmental entities
suggested that a minimal sustainability tainable Development but went further (Global Reporting Initiative). Table 1
transition would be one in which the to achieve for all humankind “a rich on pages 14 and 15 lists each study
world provides the energy, materials, quality of life, strong human ties and a with its source, the number of indica-
and information to feed, nurture, house, resonant connection to nature.”22 In such tors used, and the implicit or explicit
educate, and employ the many more
people of 2050—while reducing hun-
ger and poverty and preserving the Still another way to define sustainable
basic life support systems of the planet. development is in how it is measured.
To identify more specific goals, of
meeting human needs, reducing hunger
and poverty, and preserving the basic a world, it would be the quality of human definitions used to describe what is to be
life support systems of the planet, the knowledge, creativity, and self-realiza- sustained, what is to be developed, and
board searched the text and statements tion that represents development, not the for how long.
from recent global conferences, world quantity of goods and services. A key to Two major observations emerge. The
summits, international environmental such a future is the rejection of material first is the extraordinarily broad list of
treaties, and assessments. In so doing, consumption beyond what is needed for items to be sustained and to be devel-
the board in 1995 anticipated the 2000 fulfillment or for a “good life.” Beyond oped. These reflect the inherent mal-
Millennium Declaration goals, many of these goals, however, the details of this leability of “sustainable development”
which were incorporated into its analy- good life are poorly described. as well as the internal politics of the
sis of goals and targets. Less sanguine measurement efforts. In many of the
than the UN, the board determined it cases, the initiative is undertaken by
would take a generation to reach the Indicators a diverse set of stakeholders, and the
2015 goals of the Millennium Declara- resulting lists reflect their varied aspi-
tion and another generation to achieve Still another way to define sustainable rations. For example, in the UN Com-
the board’s goals of meeting human development is in how it is measured. mission on Sustainable Development,
needs for a 2050 population. Indeed, despite sustainable develop- the stakeholders are nations negotiating


Table 1. Definitions of sustainable development implicitly or explicitly adopted
by selected indicator initiatives

Indicator Number Implicit or What is to be What is to be For how long?

initiative of explicit sustained? developed?
indicators definition?

Commission 58 Implicit, but Climate, clean air, land Equity, health, education, Sporadic references
on Sustainable informed productivity, ocean housing, security, to 2015
Developmenta by Agenda productivity, fresh water, stabilized population
21 and biodiversity

Consultative 46 Same as Same as above Same as above Not stated; uses data for
Group on above 1990 and 2000

Wellbeing 88 Explicit “A condition in which the “A condition in which all Not stated; uses most
Indexc ecosystem maintains its members of society are recent data as of 2001
diversity and quality—and thus able to determine and and includes some
its capacity to support people meet their needs and have indicators of recent
and the rest of life—and its a large range of choices to change (such as
potential to adapt to change meet their potential” inflation and
and provide a wide change of deforestation)
choices and opportunities for
the future”

Environmental 68 Explicit “Vital environmental Resilience to environmental Not stated; uses most
Sustainability systems are maintained at disturbances (“People and recent data as of 2002
Indexd healthy levels, and to the social systems are not and includes some
extent to which levels are vulnerable (in the way indicators of recent
improving rather than of basic needs such as change (such as
deteriorating” [and] “levels health and nutrition) to deforestation) or
of anthropogenic stress are environmental disturbances; predicted change (such
low enough to engender no becoming less vulnerable as population in 2025)
demonstrable harm to its is a sign that a society is
environmental systems.” on a track to greater
sustainability”); “institutions
and underlying social
patterns of skills, attitudes,
and networks that foster
effective responses to
environmental challenges”;
and cooperation among
countries “to manage
common environmental

Genuine 26 Explicit Clean air, land, and water Economic performance, Not stated; computed
Progress families, and security annually from 1950–2000

SOURCE: Adapted from T. M. Parris and R. W. Kates, “Characterizing and Measuring Sustainable Development,” Annual Review of
Environment and Resources 28 (2003): 559–86.
United Nations Division of Sustainable Development, Indicators of Sustainable Development: Guidelines and Methodologies (2001),
Consultative Group on Sustainable Development Indicators,
R. Prescott-Allen, The Wellbeing of Nations: A Country-by-Country Index of Quality of Life and Environment (Washington DC: Island
Press, 2001).
World Economic Forum, 2002 Environmental Sustainability Index (Davos, Switzerland: World Economic Forum, 2002), http://www; and D. C. Esty and P. K. Cornelius, Environmental Performance Measurement: The Global
Report 2001–2002 (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2002).
C. Cobb, M. Glickman, and C. Cheslog, The Genuine Progress Indicator: 2000 Update (Oakland, CA: Redefining Progress, 2000).


Indicator Number Implicit or What is to be What is to be For how long?
initiative of explicit sustained? developed?
indicators definition?

Global Scenario 65 Explicit “Preserving the essential Institutions to “meet Through 2050
Groupf health, services, and human needs for food,
beauties of the earth requires water, and health, and
stabilizing the climate at safe provide opportunities for
levels, sustaining energy, education, employment and
materials, and water participation”
resources, reducing toxic
emissions, and maintaining
the world’s ecosystems and

Ecological 6 Explicit “The area of biologically Not explicitly stated;

Footprintg productive land and water computed annually from
required to produce the 1961–1999
resources consumed and to
assimilate the wastes
produced by humanity”

U.S. Interagency 40 Explicit Environment, natural Dignity, peace, equity, Current and future
Working Group resources, and ecosystem economy, employment, generations
on Sustainable services safety, health, and quality
Development of life

Costa Ricai 255 Implicit Ecosystem services, natural Economic and social Not stated; includes
resources, and biodiversity development some time series dating
back to 1950

Boston Indicator 159 Implicit Open/green space, clean Civil society, culture, Not stated; uses most
Projectj air, clean water, clean economy, education, recent data as of 2000
land, valued ecosystems, housing, health, safety, and some indicators of
biodiversity, and aesthetics technology, and recent change (such as
transportation change in poverty rates)

State Failure 75 Explicit Intrastate peace/security Two years

Task Forcek

Global Reporting 97 Implicit Reduced consumption of Profitability, employment, Current reporting year
Initiativel raw materials and reduced diversity of workforce, dignity
emissions of environmental of workforce, health/safety of
contaminants from production workforce, and health/safety/
or product use privacy of customers

P. Raskin et al., The Great Transition: The Promise and Lure of the Times Ahead (Boston, MA: Stockholm Environmental Institute, 2002),; and P. Raskin, G. Gallopin, P. Gutman, A. Hammond, and R. Swart, Bend-
ing the Curve: Toward Global Sustainability, Polestar Report 8 (Boston, MA: Stockholm Environmental Institute, 1998), http://www.tellus
M. Wackernagel et al., “Tracking the Ecological Overshoot of the Human Economy,” Proceedings of the National Academy Science 99,
no. 14 (2002): 9266–71; and M. Wackernagel, C. Monfreda, and D. Deumling, Ecological Footprint of Nations: November 2002 Update
(Oakland, CA: Redefining Progress, 2002).
U.S. Interagency Working Group on Sustainable Development Indicators (IWGSDI), Sustainable Development in the United States: An
Experimental Set of Indicators, IWGSDI Report PR42.8:SU 8/EX 7 (Washington, DC, 1998).
Sistema de Indicadores sobre Desarrollo Sostenible (System of Indicators for Sustainable Development), Principales Indicadores de
Costa Rica (Principal Indicators of Costa Rica) (San José, Costa Rica: Ministerio de Planificación Nacional y Política Económica (Ministry
of National Planning and Political Economy), 1998),
The Boston Indicator Project, The Wisdom of Our Choices: Boston’s Indicators of Progress, Change and Sustainability 2000 (Boston,
MA: Boston Foundation, 2002),
D. C. Esty et al., 1998. “The State Failure Project: Early Warning Research for US Foreign Policy Planning,” in J. L. Davies and T. R. Gurr,
eds., Preventive Measures: Building Risk Assessment and Crisis Early Warning Systems (Boulder, CO: Rowman & Littlefield), 27–38;
and D. C. Esty, J. A. Goldstone, T. R. Gurr, P. T. Surko, and A. N. Unger, Working Paper: State Failure Task Force Report (McLean, VA:
Science Applications International Corporation, 1995); State Failure Task Force, “State Failure Task Force Report, Phase II Findings,”
Environmental Change and Security Project Report 5 (1999): 49–72.
Global Reporting Initiative,


how to measure their relative progress indicators, and definitional differences period in which sustainable develop-
or lack of progress toward sustainable are downplayed in favor of reaching ment should be considered. Despite the
development. In the Boston Indicators a common set of indicators. Thus, to emphasis in the standard definition on
Project, the stakeholders are community be inclusive, the range of indicators intergenerational equity, there seems in
members with varied opinions about becomes very broad. Half the exam- most indicator efforts a focus on the
desirable goals, policies, and investment ined initiatives, however, represent less- present or the very short term. Three
priorities for the future. In the Global inclusive research or advocacy groups exceptions, however, are worth noting:
Reporting Initiative, the stakeholders are who share a more narrow and homog- The UN Commission on Sustainable
corporations, investors, regulatory agen- enous view of sustainable development. Development uses some human devel-
cies, and civil society groups discussing While also assembling large numbers of opment indicators defined in terms of
how to account for corporate actions indicators, these groups tend to aggre- a single generation (15–25 years),24 the
affecting sustainable development. With gate them to reflect their distinctive Global Scenario Group quantifies its
many stakeholders, each with different vision of sustainability. scenarios through 2050 (approximately
definitions, achieving consensus often A second observation is that few of two generations), and the Ecological
takes the form of long “laundry lists” of the efforts are explicit about the time Footprint argues that in the long run
an environmental footprint larger than
one Earth cannot be sustained. Overall,
these diverse indicator efforts reflect the
ambiguous time horizon of the standard
VALUES UNDERLYING definition—“now and in the future.”
The Millennium Declaration—which outlines 60 goals for peace; develop- Values
ment; the environment; human rights; the vulnerable, hungry, and poor;
Africa; and the United Nations—is founded on a core set of values described
as follows: Still another mode of defining sustain-
“We consider certain fundamental values to be essential to international able development is through the val-
relations in the twenty-first century. These include: ues that represent or support sustainable
• Freedom. Men and women have the right to live their lives and raise development.25 But values, like sustain-
their children in dignity, free from hunger and from the fear of violence,
oppression or injustice. Democratic and participatory governance based on the able development, have many mean-
will of the people best assures these rights. ings. In general, values are expressions
• Equality. No individual and no nation must be denied the opportunity to of, or beliefs in, the worth of objects,
benefit from development. The equal rights and opportunities of women and qualities, or behaviors. They are typi-
men must be assured. cally expressed in terms of goodness
• Solidarity. Global challenges must be managed in a way that distributes
the costs and burdens fairly in accordance with basic principles of equity and or desirability or, conversely, in terms
social justice. Those who suffer or who benefit least deserve help from those of badness or avoidance. They often
who benefit most. invoke feelings, define or direct us to
• Tolerance. Human beings must respect one other, in all their diversity of goals, frame our attitudes, and provide
belief, culture and language. Differences within and between societies should standards against which the behaviors of
be neither feared nor repressed, but cherished as a precious asset of human-
ity. A culture of peace and dialogue among all civilizations should be actively individuals and societies can be judged.
promoted. As such, they often overlap with sustain-
• Respect for nature. Prudence must be shown in the management of all ability goals and indicators. Indeed, the
living species and natural resources, in accordance with the precepts of sus- three pillars of sustainable development;
tainable development. Only in this way can the immeasurable riches provided the benchmark goals of the Millennium
to us by nature be preserved and passed on to our descendants. The current
unsustainable patterns of production and consumption must be changed in the Declaration, the Sustainability Transi-
interest of our future welfare and that of our descendants. tion, and the Great Transition; and the
• Shared responsibility. Responsibility for managing worldwide econom- many indicator initiatives are all expres-
ic and social development, as well as threats to international peace and secu- sions of values.
rity, must be shared among the nations of the world and should be exercised But these values, as described in the
multi-laterally. As the most universal and most representative organization in
the world, the United Nations must play the central role.”1 previous sections, do not encompass the
full range of values supporting sustain-
1. United Nations General Assembly, “United Nations Millennium Declaration,” Resolution 55/2,
able development. One explicit state-
United Nations A/RES/55/2, 18 September 2000, page x. ment of supporting values is found in
the Millennium Declaration. Underlying
the 60 specific goals of the Millen-


nium Declaration are an articulated set involved “the most open and participa- more than 50 international law instru-
of fundamental values seen as essen- tory consultation process ever conduct- ments were surveyed and summarized
tial to international relations: freedom, ed in connection with an international in Principles of Environmental Conser-
equality, solidarity, tolerance, respect for document. Thousands of individuals vation and Sustainable Development:
nature, and shared responsibility (see the and hundreds of organizations from all Summary and Survey.30 Four first-order
box on page 16). regions of the world, different cultures, principles were identified and expressed
The Millennium Declaration was and diverse sectors of society . . . par- in the Earth Charter as the community
adopted by the UN General Assem- ticipated.”28 Released in the year 2000, of life, ecological integrity, social and
bly, but the origins of the declaration’s the Earth Charter has been endorsed economic justice, and democracy, non-
set of fundamental values are unclear. by more than 14,000 individuals and violence, and peace. Sixteen second-
In contrast, the origins of the Earth organizations worldwide representing order principles expand on these four,
Charter Initiative—which defines the millions of members, yet it has failed and 61 third-order principles elaborate


Earth Charter as a “declaration of fun- to attain its desired endorsement or on the 16. For example, the core prin-
damental principles for building a just, adoption by the 2002 World Summit cipal of social and economic justice is
sustainable, and peaceful global society on Sustainable Development or the UN elaborated by principles of equitable
in the 21st century”26—is well docu- General Assembly. economy, eradication of poverty, and
mented. The initiative answers the call The values of the Earth Charter the securing of gender equality and the
of the World Commission on Environ- are derived from “contemporary sci- rights of indigenous peoples. In turn,
ment and Development for creation of ence, international law, the teachings each of these principles is further expli-
“a universal declaration” that would of indigenous peoples, the wisdom of cated with three or four specific actions
“consolidate and extend relevant legal the world’s great religions and philo- or intentions.31
principles,” create “new norms . . . sophical traditions, the declarations and
needed to maintain livelihoods and life reports of the seven UN summit confer-
on our shared planet,” and “ guide state ences held during the 1990s, the global Practice

Finally—and in many ways, most

Few of the efforts are explicit about importantly—sustainable development is
defined in practice. The practice includes
the time period in which sustainable the many efforts at defining the concept,
establishing goals, creating indicators,
development should be considered. and asserting values. But additionally,
it includes developing social move-
behavior in the transition to sustain- ethics movement, numerous nongovern- ments, organizing institutions, crafting
able development.”27 An effort to draft mental declarations and people’s treaties sustainability science and technology,
a charter at the 1992 Earth Summit issued over the past thirty years, and and negotiating the grand compromise
was unsuccessful. In 1994 a new Earth best practices for building sustainable among those who are principally con-
Charter Initiative was launched that communities.”29 For example, in 1996, cerned with nature and environment,


those who value economic development, peoples, local authorities, NGOs, the solidarity movement, and the corporate
and those who are dedicated to improv- scientific and technological com- responsibility movement.40 The move-
ing the human condition. munities, trade unions, and women) ment for sustainable livelihoods consists
attended the World Summit on Sus- of local initiatives that seek to create
A Social Movement tainable Development in Johannesburg. opportunities for work and sustenance
These groups organized themselves that offer sustainable and credible alter-
Sustainable development can be into approximately 40 geographical and natives to current processes of devel-
viewed as a social movement—“a group issue-based caucuses. 35 opment and modernization. Consisting
of people with a common ideology who But underlying this participation in primarily of initiatives in developing
try together to achieve certain general the formal international sustainable countries, the movement has counter-


goals.”32 In an effort to encourage the development events are a host of social parts in the developed world, as seen, for
creation of a broadly based social move- movements struggling to identify what example, in local efforts in the United
ment in support of sustainable develop- sustainable development means in the States to mandate payment of a “living
ment, UNCED was the first interna- context of specific places and peoples. wage” rather than a minimum wage.
tional, intergovernmental conference to One such movement is the effort of The global solidarity movement seeks
provide full access to a wide range of many communities, states, provinces, to support poor people in developing
nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) or regions to engage in community countries in ways that go beyond the
and to encourage an independent Earth exercises to define a desirable sustain- altruistic support for development fund-
ing. Their campaigns are expressed as
antiglobalization or “globalization from
Sustainable development can be viewed as below”41 in critical appraisals of major
international institutions, in the move-
a social movement—“a group of people ment for the cancellation of debt,42 and
in critiques of developed-world poli-
with a common ideology who try together cies—such as agricultural subsidies—
to achieve certain general goals.” that significantly impact developing
countries and especially poor people.43
The corporate responsibility move-
Summit at a nearby venue. More than able future and the actions needed to ment has three dimensions: various cam-
1,400 NGOs and 8,000 journalists partic- attain it. Examples include Sustainable paigns by NGOs to change corporate
ipated.33 One social movement launched Seattle,36 Durban’s Local Agenda 21 environmental and social behavior;44
from UNCED was the effort described Programme,37 the Lancashire County efforts by corporations to contribute
above to create an Earth Charter, to ratify Council Local Agenda 21 Strategy,38 to sustainable development goals and
it, and to act upon its principles. and the Minnesota Sustainable Develop- to reduce their negative environmental
In 2002, 737 new NGOs34 and more ment Initiative.39 and social impacts;45 and international
than 8,046 representatives of major Three related efforts are the sustain- initiatives such as the UN Global Com-
groups (business, farmers, indigenous able livelihoods movement, the global pact46 or the World Business Council for


Sustainable Development47 that seek to the intergovernmental level, sustain- deepening our understanding of socio-
harness the knowledge, energies, and able development is now found as a ecological systems in particular places
activities of corporations to better serve central theme throughout the United while exploring innovative mechanisms
nature and society. For instance, in Nations and its specialized agencies. for producing knowledge so that it is
the just-selected Global 100, the most Evidence of this shift can be seen in relevant, credible, and legitimate to
sustainable corporations in the world, the creation of the Division of Sustain- local decisionmakers.57
the top three corporations were Toyota, able Development within the United The efforts of the science and technolo-
selected for its leadership in introducing Nations Department of Economic and gy community to contribute to sustainable
hybrid vehicles; Alcoa, for management Social Affairs, the establishment of a development is exemplified in the actions
of materials and energy efficiency; and vice president for environmentally and of the major Academies of Science58 and
British Petroleum, for leadership in socially sustainable development at the International Disciplinary Unions,59 in
greenhouse gas emissions reduction, World Bank, and the declaration of the collaborative networks of individual sci-
energy efficiency, renewables, and United Nations Decade of Education entists and technologists,60 in emerging
waste treatment and handling.48 for Sustainable Development. Similarly, programs of interdisciplinary education,61
A related social movement focuses numerous national and local govern- and in many efforts to supply scientific
on excessive material consumption and mental entities have been established to support to communities.62
its impacts on the environment and create and monitor sustainable develop-
society and seeks to foster voluntary ment strategies.52 According to a recent A Grand Compromise
simplicity of one form or another. These survey by the International Council for
advocates argue that beyond certain Local Environment Initiatives, “6,416 One of the successes of sustainable
thresholds, ever-increasing consump- local authorities in 113 countries have development has been its ability to
tion does not increase subjective levels either made a formal commitment to serve as a grand compromise between
of happiness, satisfaction, or health.49 Local Agenda 21 or are actively under- those who are principally concerned
Rather, it often has precisely the oppo- taking the process,” and the number with nature and environment, those who
site effect. Thus, these efforts present of such processes has been growing value economic development, and those
a vision of “the good life” in which dramatically.53 In addition to these gov- who are dedicated to improving the
people work and consume less than is ernmental efforts, sustainable develop- human condition. At the core of this
prevalent in today’s consumer-driven ment has emerged in the organization compromise is the inseparability of envi-
affluent societies. charts of businesses (such as Lafarge54), ronment and development described by
As with any social movement, sus-
tainable development encounters oppo-
sition. The opponents of sustainable Much of what is described as sustainable
development attack from two very dif-
ferent perspectives: At one end of the development are negotiations in which
spectrum are those that view sustainable
development as a top-down attempt by
workable compromises are found that address
the United Nations to dictate how the objectives of competing interest groups.
people of the world should live their
lives—and thus as a threat to individual
freedoms and property rights.50 At the consultancies (including CH2M Hill55), the World Commission on Environment
other end are those who view sustain- and investment indices (such as the Dow and Development. Thus, much of what
able development as capitulation that Jones Sustainability Index). is described as sustainable development
implies development as usual, driven in practice are negotiations in which
by the interests of big business and Sustainability Science and Technology workable compromises are found that
multilateral institutions and that pays address the environmental, economic,
only lip service to social justice and the Sustainable development is also and human development objectives of
protection of nature.51 becoming a scientific and technologi- competing interest groups. Indeed, this is
cal endeavor that, according to the why so many definitions of sustainable
Institutions Initiative on Science and Technology development include statements about
for Sustainable Development, “seeks to open and democratic decisionmaking.
The goals of sustainable develop- enhance the contribution of knowledge At the global scale, this compromise
ment have been firmly embedded in a to environmentally sustainable human has engaged the wealthy and poor coun-
large number of national, international, development around the world.”56 tries of the world in a common endeavor.
and nongovernmental institutions. At This emerging enterprise is focused on Before this compromise was formally


adopted by UNCED, the poorer coun- tation enables participants at multiple a creative tension between a few core
tries of the world often viewed demands levels, from local to global, within and principles and an openness to reinterpre-
for greater environmental protection as across activity sectors, and in institutions tation and adaptation to different social
a threat to their ability to develop, while of governance, business, and civil society and ecological contexts.
the rich countries viewed some of the to redefine and reinterpret its meaning to Sustainable development thus requires
development in poor countries as a threat fit their own situation. Thus, the concept the participation of diverse stakeholders
to valued environmental resources. The of sustainability has been adapted to and perspectives, with the ideal of rec-
concept of sustainable development address very different challenges, rang- onciling different and sometimes oppos-
attempts to couple development aspira- ing from the planning of sustainable cit- ing values and goals toward a new syn-
tions with the need to preserve the basic ies to sustainable livelihoods, sustainable thesis and subsequent coordination of
life support systems of the planet. agriculture to sustainable fishing, and mutual action to achieve multiple values
the efforts to develop common corporate simultaneously and even synergistically.
So, What Is standards in the UN Global Compact and As real-world experience has shown,
Sustainable Development? in the World Business Council for Sus- however, achieving agreement on sus-
tainable Development. tainability values, goals, and actions
Since the Brundtland Commission Despite this creative ambiguity and is often difficult and painful work, as
first defined sustainable development, openness to interpretation, sustainable different stakeholder values are forced
dozens, if not hundreds, of scholars and development has evolved a core set of to the surface, compared and contrasted,
practitioners have articulated and pro- guiding principles and values, based on criticized and debated. Sometimes indi-
moted their own alternative definition; the Brundtland Commission’s standard vidual stakeholders find the process
yet a clear, fixed, and immutable mean- definition to meet the needs, now and too difficult or too threatening to their
ing remains elusive. This has led some in the future, for human, economic, and own values and either reject the process
observers to call sustainable develop- social development within the restraints entirely to pursue their own narrow
ment an oxymoron: fundamentally con- of the life support systems of the planet. goals or critique it ideologically, without
tradictory and irreconcilable. Further, Further, the connotations of both of engaging in the hard work of negotiation
if anyone can redefine and reapply the the phrase’s root words, “sustainable” and compromise. Critique is nonetheless
a vital part of the conscious evolution
The concrete challenges of sustainable of sustainable development—a concept
that, in the end, represents diverse local
development are at least as heterogeneous to global efforts to imagine and enact a
positive vision of a world in which basic
and complex as the diversity of human societies human needs are met without destroying
or irrevocably degrading the natural sys-
and natural ecosystems around the world. tems on which we all depend.
Robert W. Kates is an independent scholar based in
term to fit their purposes, it becomes and “development” are generally quite Trenton, Maine, and a professor emeritus at Brown
meaningless in practice, or worse, can be positive for most people, and their com- University, where he served as director of the Feinstein
World Hunger Program. He is also a former vice-chair
used to disguise or greenwash socially or bination imbues this concept with inher- of the Board of Sustainable Development of the U.S
environmentally destructive activities. ent and near-universal agreement that National Academy’s National Research Council. In
1991, Kates was awarded the National Medal of Sci-
Yet, despite these critiques, each defi- sustainability is a worthwhile value and ence for his work on hunger, environment, and natural
nitional attempt is an important part of goal—a powerful feature in diverse and hazards. He is an executive editor of Environment and
may be contacted at Thomas M.
an ongoing dialogue. In fact, sustain- conflicted social contexts. Parris is a research scientist at and director of the New
able development draws much of its Importantly, however, these underly- England office of ISCIENCES, LLC. He is a contrib-
uting editor of Environment. Parris may be reached at
resonance, power, and creativity from its ing principles are not fixed and immuta- Anthony A. Leiserowitz is a
very ambiguity. The concrete challenges ble but the evolving product of a global research scientist at Decision Research and an adjunct
professor of environmental studies at the University
of sustainable development are at least dialogue, now several decades old, about of Oregon, Eugene. He is also an investigator at the
as heterogeneous and complex as the what sustainability should mean. The Center for Research on Environmental Decisions at
Columbia University. Leiserowitz may be reached at
diversity of human societies and natural original emphasis on economic devel- (541) 485-2400 or by e-mail at
ecosystems around the world. As a con- opment and environmental protection The authors retain copyright.

cept, its malleability allows it to remain has been broadened and deepened to
an open, dynamic, and evolving idea that include alternative notions of develop- NOTES
can be adapted to fit these very different ment (human and social) and alternative
situations and contexts across space and views of nature (anthropocentric versus 1. h t t p : / / w w w. g o o g l e . c o m / s e a r c h ? q = % 2 2
time. Likewise, its openness to interpre- ecocentric). Thus, the concept maintains sustainable+development%22&start=0&start=0&ie


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and national levels have relied on the group’s scenario ing Livelihoods in the Developing World,” Oxfam tions and individual scientists.
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21. P. Raskin et al., Great Transition: The Promise 44. See, for example, the Interfaith Center for 62. See for example, A. L. Mabogunje and
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22. Ibid., page 43. A Great Transition Initiative 45. One measure of the extent of this activity is the Science and Technology,” CID Working Paper No.
has been launched to help crystallize a global citizens 625 corporations or other entities referring to or using 102 (Cambridge, MA: Sustainable Development Pro-
movement to advance the vision of the scenario. For sustainability-reporting guidelines in their corporate gram, Center for International Development, Harvard
more information, see reports as part of the Global Reporting Initiative, University, 2004).